In 2007, Ben Dubin-Thaler purchased a 1974 San Francisco transit bus from Craigslist and transformed the inside of the bus into a mobile laboratory classroom, complete with state-of-the-art microscopes, computers and three rows of blue vinyl-covered, cushioned benches. Today, the BioBus travels around the country, bringing an interactive science education to more than 10,000 students each year.
On a monitor attached to a microscope, a blue-green amoeba slowly crawls across the screen with a wave-like motion. The eyes of the students huddled in front of the screen widen, as this is the first time many of them have seen live cells and small organisms. The microscope is housed in a hands-on science laboratory located in a high-tech, brightly painted bus called the “BioBus.”
In August 2007, Ben Dubin-Thaler, or “Dr. Ben,” founded Cell Motion Laboratories Inc., an educational nonprofit, weeks after defending his doctoral dissertation on cell mobility at Columbia University. Instead of getting a job, he purchased a 1974 San Francisco transit bus from Craigslist and transformed the inside of the bus into a functional wet-lab, outfitted with three state-of-the-art microscopes and computers. All of the equipment is research-grade and was acquired through donations or grants. The BioBus even has a classroom comprised of three rows of blue vinyl-covered, cushioned benches and a large computer screen centered on the back wall.
“While teaching in college and graduate school, I noticed that when other people had this chance to play and experiment, they became excited and happy about science, in contrast to what often happened while sitting through lectures or reading a textbook. The BioBus is my way of bringing the fun and excitement of scientific experimentation to all people,” says Dubin-Thaler.
What also is amazing about the BioBus is that it’s carbon-neutral. Its daily energy needs are provided by the solar panels on the roof of the bus, a wind turbine attached to the front of the bus and an engine that runs on used vegetable oil. And, Dubin-Thaler designs his projects so that they use salvaged materials when possible, in an effort to reduce waste.
The BioBus travels throughout New York state and around the country, bringing an interactive science education to more than 10,000 students each year. The program focuses on students who normally do not have access to high-tech laboratory equipment. The BioBus makes stops at public schools, summer camps, parks, museums, community gardens, urban farms and after-school programs. In addition, the bus parks at various locations around the city and opens its doors to the curious public.
To run the BioBus, a team of more than 50 volunteer scientists, educators, writers, web developers and mechanics is required. Scientists play an important role on the BioBus as educators and positive role models. If you are interested in volunteering or donating to the bus, go to the BioBus home page at www.biobus.org for more information and a schedule of upcoming events.
BioBus classes are taught by doctoral-level scientists and are structured to complement each school or program’s curriculum at all grade levels. Students explore the microscopic world around them, normally invisible to the naked eye. As soon as the students board the bus, they immediately start looking through a microscope. Dubin-Thaler’s current biology experiments range from looking at pond water and identifying micro-organisms to monitoring the beating heart of the transparent crustacean daphnia. In collaboration with the New York University Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, students also observe Brownian motion of paint drying, which is very dramatic, microscopically. Also, with the help of a Cornell University ecologist, students study insect-plant relationships by examining aphids and predatory mites.
After the BioBus leaves a school, teachers and students are given follow-up activities based on the digital microscope images and movies captured on the bus. This allows curiosity about science to continue in the classroom. “Teachers and principals always talk about how much excitement the BioBus brings to their school, and we’ve been invited back to every school we’ve visited, which speaks to the impact we are having,” says Dubin-Thaler.
In January, the Awesome Foundation awarded its first New York City $1,000 grant to Dubin-Thaler to build a laser tractor beam onboard the BioBus. Construction of the laser will be published in an open-access science education journal, which will allow schools and science enthusiasts to build their own lasers. The laser tweezers will be used to immobilize bacteria to capture cell division and feed bacteria to amoeba.
So, what’s next for the BioBus? Fun new experiments are being developed constantly. For example, researchers at the New York Botanical Garden and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia are creating a project on algae. Also, there are plans underway to acquire a second bus, which will serve as an in-depth classroom. This bus will teach follow-up classes after the BioBus has visited.
The BioBus is not alone in its quest to take science on the road. Various schools and organizations throughout the country have created similar traveling labs, and some have been running for more than a decade. Each program quickly becomes oversubscribed. Mobile labs are successful because the people running the programs share all of their resources. There even is an organization called the Mobile Laboratory Coalition, which assists in and advises the development of new mobile-lab programs. The excitement of science is spreading with the help of these labs. Exposing students to research-level hands-on experiments is the best way to inspire the next generation of scientists.
Dubin-Thaler explains, “the BioBus is about changing young people’s lives by getting them really excited about exploring their world through science.”
Nancy Van Prooyen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute.